Accountability, Change, Higher Education

The Limits of Ad Hoc Committees

In 2012, when I first came to Western Connecticut State University, one of my new colleagues asked me if I was more of a spreadsheet person or an idea person. I happily responded, ideas, and then found my life fully immersed in spreadsheets. The truth is that I am both. I have ideas every single day, but I need to ground them in data, considering the context and cost of an initiative, and planning to measure the impact. As far as I can tell one cannot lead without having some ideas and then vetting them; it is the job.

As I reflect on the work we have done over the last ten years, I see that a lot of good has come out of the back and forth between data and ideas. Our revised general education curriculum seems to have had a positive impact on our graduation rates. I can’t measure causality on this one, but I think the implementation of the First Year Navigation course as part of the gen-ed, coupled with greater transparency in our requirements must be part of the reason why those numbers have improved. I can say for sure that after it was implemented the number of requests for last minute waivers or course substitutions because students had missed a hidden rule in the requirements decreased. There is still room for improvement, but I think the change has overall been a win for student success. This work was completed through the work of our Committee on General Education, working through governance and responding to input. Not everyone was happy, but decisions were made.

Driven by enrollment data and the not so great news about declining high school graduates in New England, I have worked with colleagues to support the development of new graduate degree programs. These programs have been much more informed by regional workforce needs (nursing, addiction counseling, education, healthcare leadership) than our older paths to curriculum development. Indeed, we have had to face facts about enrollment data in some of those older degree programs and we made the decision to close a few. Whether these new programs will be enough to fill the gaps in recruitment at the undergraduate level remains to be seen, but the signs are promising, and I am monitoring outcomes. The curricular changes followed our normal governance processes, with a little extra support in terms of projected demand for new programs and a commitment to looking at our own enrollment trends for faltering programs. Not everyone was happy, but decisions were made.

Close scrutiny of our retention rates has led to the development of our new peer mentor program. After years of asking ourselves who we were losing, and in some cases, just feeling overwhelmed by the many potential factors, a look at the patterns in our retention data gave us clear direction. As the chief evaluator of our outcomes data, I instigated this conversation. Starting first with a standing university committee, I thought the path would be relatively smooth. Unfortunately, it was not, and after being rejected at that level, I moved to an ad hoc committee. The good news is some talented faculty and staff worked together to move this one forward. That bad news is it took three years to implement. There was progress, and we are measuring outcomes, but I was unsuccessful in communicating the urgency of the situation. Still, decisions were made.

As a strong believer in shared governance, I do my very best to move initiatives forward through our normal university processes. At WCSU, we have very positive governance structures in place, structures that I am immensely proud of, because they recognize the collaboration that must take place between faculty, staff, students, and administration. Most of our committees have representation from all of those constituencies on them. This encourages free discussion and the engagement of ideas from all areas. Most of the time this works very well, if somewhat ploddingly. Nevertheless, there are moments when an idea does not really fit in our normal structures and I generally choose to ask for an ad hoc committee to be appointed (sometimes by me, sometimes through Senate leadership), to explore those ideas. Unfortunately, these committees do not seem to reach the point where decisions can be made.

Over the last few years, I have relied on ad hoc committees to try to help me sort through several initiatives or questions. Of those several, only one has managed to truly move an idea forward. It has been a lesson in leadership for me. To be clear, I have utterly failed to impress upon those involved, the importance of the initiatives for the university’s future. It is likely that I was less than clear in the goals as well. I take the blame for the lack of clarity, but I am perplexed as to what to do next.

It isn’t that I expected those committees to return reports that looked exactly like what I thought they would when we started the conversation. If that were the case, it would not be an ad hoc committee exploring a question, but an implementation team. The point of the committees was to look at the starting material/question and then consider a variety of ways to address those questions. In this spirit I met with each group to outline what I thought the pertinent questions about the topic were and then opened things up for the questions and ideas. In each case, the committees asked for clarifications, which I tried to provide, and then they went to work. I stepped back and let the group’s wisdom take hold.

Unfortunately, in nearly every case, people seemed to either be unable to resolve debates within the committee, or they veered off in an unanticipated direction that completely transformed the original charge. Oh well. People did their best. Obviously I was not clear enough. That’s life.

Except some of these committees were formed to address urgent questions, questions that could have an impact on enrollment, or on campus climate, or on the general direction of the university, as we adjust to enrollment challenges and recover from a pandemic. Oh well, just doesn’t cut it. I have failed to lead.

This puts me in a quandary. You see, I don’t just say I embrace shared governance, I mean it. I know the limits of my imagination and I value the dialogue that our processes support. But I have clearly reached the limits of ad hoc committees because they are not leading to action. We need to take action. It is urgent.

I need a new path. I have to figure out how to move urgent things forward, things that have the potential to transform or bolster our campus, so that we might thrive in the face of that demographic cliff we are all staring at. Not all of our next steps will fit neatly into our defined structures so I can’t just default to the usual paths. I still value the input of the many, in all that we do, but I am worried about pace and I am worried about distractions. Decisions have to be made. It is time to regroup.

2 thoughts on “The Limits of Ad Hoc Committees”

  1. Of all the things professors do, faculty are best trained to do research, second to teach, and last to do administrative work. It’s third in our list of categories of evaluation (out of four) and I have regularly heard faculty dismissing service overall. We teach four classes and there is little time for reach outside of unpaid summers and intersessions. WCSU needs to build a culture where leadership is cultivated and where service is valued.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.